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Automated Searches: Shortcut or Cheat?

Did you know genealogists are argumentative? I've been in this industry so long I don't know if this is something "special" about genealogists or (more likely) something you'll find in any group full of passionate people.

One "hot topic" I've heard being argued is using automated searches. The example I think most people are familiar with are the "shaky leaves" that appear on Ancestry.com trees (I mean, they feature them in their t.v. ads, how can you not know about them?).
Are automated genealogy searches a shortcut or a cheat? Do you even know the difference?

Sometimes, if I'm with a group of professionals, it's not an argument you hear. Instead, it's more of a gripe fest. Why? Professional genealogists see a LOT of cases of "cheating" using automated online searches. It can make your job really hard.

However, I actually love using automated searches as a shortcut. It's important you understand the difference and use automated searches as a shortcut and not a cheat.
... use automated searches as a shortcut and not a cheat.

I was won over to Ancestry.com's automated searches (the type that occurs from your family tree and results in the little leaf) when it found a family I had "lost." That's the only time I've had such a dramatic result but after that, I intentionally used automated searching as part of my process. I figured if it could find the right family when I didn't know where to look, it must have some merit, and it does.

Automated searches still require human intervention. "Cheating" happens when you think you can just let the computer do everything for you.
Cheating happens when you think you can just let the computer do everything for you.
I think most people who try out a site with this feature think this is how you're supposed to do genealogy (notice I didn't say "genealogists who try out a site").

I'm not a confrontational person so I haven't just outright asked clients "did you keep every record suggested by [fill in the site they used]?" but I think that's happened a number of times.

Guess what? Most of those suggestions are wrong.

I don't know the exact algorithms but I do know that sites want to make as many suggestions as possible. Occasionally I have received no suggestions but that has been in odd situations.

Think of it this way. If your person only appears in five records on a site, the automated search wants to give you pages and pages of suggestions. That means only five of those suggestions can possibly be correct but you've been provided with hundreds.
These are suggestions. You're supposed to look at them and decide if the record is for your person.

So how do I make automated searches work for me?

  • I create an online tree.

If you're worried about privacy...
You can make a tree private (there is always a chance online information can be revealed, I don't list names of my closest relatives, who I don't need to research, as an extra layer of protection). On Ancestry.com, you can make your tree private and then there is a second option where you exclude your tree from searches.

With my completely private tree...
  • I enter basic information and 
  • then I walk away (or research on another site).
It can take a little while for the automated search to really get going. I don't know what exactly affects this as sometimes it seems almost instantaneous and sometimes I come back the next day to get results.

Sounds really simple and obvious, right? It is.

Here's what I'm specifically doing.

Automated searches work best on pretty basic records like census records. Also (at least for Ancestry.com), once you attach records to your tree, some of your suggestions are based on the records others have attached.

I get the most time-savings by having the automated search work on the most basic records. I don't sit back and twiddle my thumbs, that wouldn't save any time. These records usually aren't hard to find. I might even find them faster doing the search myself. The point is the automated search is working while I'm working on a second task. It's like doing two things at once, searching for records on Ancestry.com and a second task.
The point is the automated search is working while I'm working on a second task. It's like doing two things at once...
Occasionally, the computer does a better job coming up with search alternatives than you would. This can result in less common records being found. Check the automated search suggestions occasionally to see if there's anything new.

The second way you'll save time is when new collections are released. If you already have a tree created, the suggestions will start appearing as soon as the collections are searchable. While you're laying on a beach enjoying your vacation, your computer is searching for records in newly released collections.

RELATED POST: How to Speed Up Your Online Research with Five-minute Prep Sessions

You need to be aware that suggestions on Ancestry.com are also based on what other researchers have attached to their tree. That means common misconceptions and errors are perpetuated.

Next week I'll post detailed information about how to efficiently deal with this situation when you aren't following best practices in genealogy (because sometimes you do good research in less than ideal circumstances). I'm an Occasional Genealogist, too. I know the reality is often choosing to do genealogy on-the-fly or not at all. That doesn't mean you can't make the most of a bad (research habit) situation.

Using automated searches isn't a bad research habit. You just have to understand the limitations and potential pitfalls and deal with them appropriately.

Automated searches can be a great shortcut, as long as you use them correctly. Don't rely on a computer to make decisions for you. Computers are great at searching, not deciding.
Computers are great at searching, not deciding.
Also, don't rely on other researchers. You know nothing about their research experience. Sometimes they do uncover a record you couldn't find because they are coming from a different branch on the family tree. That's another reason why automated searches and suggestions are helpful.

You can't take the genealogist out of genealogy. Review the records that appear correct to you.


Do you use the automated search on a site other than Ancestry.com and have some suggestion? Post a comment to share what you've learned.

1 comment:

  1. Great article!!! I'm going to include it in my list of resources for the Introduction to Family History talk I'm giving at the library where I work in a couple of weeks.

    ReplyDelete

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